30 November 2000 | Cathy Hayward
The speed restrictions and repair work begun after the Hatfield derailment in October could signal the death knell for the rail freight industry, according to industry commentators.
"These works are severely damaging rail transport," said Brian Jeffery, senior lecturer in supply chain management at Coventry Business School. "If they continue in the long-term, logistics companies won't risk transporting goods by rail and will move to road haulage permanently."
Trade body the Freight Transport Association (FTA) agreed. "Railtrack's works, coming at almost no notice, have caused big problems for the freight industry," said a spokesman.
Most of the repairs are done at night, which is prime time for freight movements. When tracks do open, speed restrictions cause delays so trains miss connections, he added.
But Railtrack is not solely to blame, said the FTA. The worst storms to hit Britain in a decade and severe flooding in the south-east, Yorkshire, the Welsh borders and the midlands have caused more lines to be blocked and stations flooded.
The situation has already resulted in freight firms losing contracts. The Post Office, the rail network's biggest customer, has worked with freight operator English Welsh & Scottish Railway (EWS) to carry 20 million first-class letters around the country daily. But it said it was in talks with EWS and Railtrack about the future and was questioning the use of rail transport, especially over Christmas when more than 60 million letters are delivered daily. The Post Office was now transporting mail by road and air. A spokesman said the railways could not take its business for granted.
"Around half our trains were delayed, diverted or cancelled," said a spokesman for EWS. "The bad weather meant that rolling stock was often in the wrong place or customers couldn't get goods to us because of flooding."
Freightliner, another rail freight company, said capacity had been severely reduced during a chaotic couple of weeks.
Other firms said customers were prepared to hang on until the works were over. Freight company Exel said that customers recognised the short-term difficulties would solve long-term problems and result in a more efficient rail network.
Repairs and speed restrictions will last until next spring. But further accidents since the Hatfield disaster have dented confidence in rail freight. An empty EWS freight train collided with a coal train in Bristol recently, closing the main line linking London to Birmingham with the west country for three days.